By Cheryl Baehr
By Mabel Suen
By Cheryl Baehr
By Mabel Suen
By Cheryl Baehr
By Nancy Sitles
By Nancy Stiles
By Patrick Hurley
"So, can I get you gentlemen something more to drink? Or maybe something to nibble on -- some pizza shooters, shrimp poppers or extreme fajitas?"
-- Brian, the overzealous Chotchkie's waiter, in Office Space (1999)
811 Spruce St.
St. Louis, MO 63102
Region: St. Louis - Riverfront
314-552-5850. Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Mon-Sun.
New American, as some sort of distinct culinary genre, is a joke. The New Food Lover's Companion, the foodie's go-to dictionary, makes no mention of it, though it does define the more indigenously American "Cajun cooking," "Creole cooking" and "soul food" -- which began in people's kitchens or on their fire pits out back, not in the white-jacketed, toque-topped environs of professional chefs.
Everybody knows that Cajun has its jambalaya, Creole its gumbo and soul food its ham hocks and collard greens, just as everybody knows that pasta's the bedrock of Italian cuisine, paella the pride of Spain, and that Irish food is bland, but those corned-beef sandwiches are pretty good. Meanwhile nobody can name a single New American staple, and any attempt to do so will quickly devolve into self-parody: Asian-Dijon seared breast of Missouri farm-raised chicken, served on a bed of wilted baby radicchio, with taro-root purée, coconut-soaked Yukon Gold potatoes and a passion fruit-molasses emulsion.
New American is nothing more than menu Mad Libs, a crazy assemblage of keywords, not any one of them providing anchor to a sloppy, culinary catch-all cuisine. Regular old American foods, when you read them on a menu, make you go mmm. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes....mmm. Roasted turkey and stuffing.... mmm. Fried chicken.... mmm. But reading a New American menu makes you go ooh! a lot, because it sounds cute. Take the dinner menu at Clark Street Grill: balsamic roasted portobello -- ooh! Brie cheese -- ooh!-- with baby arugula -- ooh! -- and basil vinaigrette -- ooh! Truffled Parmesan pommes frites -- ooh! Chicory coffee lacquered quail -- cuuuute!
Sure, it's possible to enjoy a delicious New American meal, but at restaurants like the three-year-old Clark Street Grill -- located inside the downtown Westin Hotel -- it's largely luck of the draw, and it's not often worth the price.
Clark Street's kitchen was recently inherited by sous chef Stephen Milstein after exec chef Doug Knopp flew the coop for an Eastern-seaboard country club. Milstein's menu leans toward the absurd. Building on Chotchkie's pizza shooters and shrimp poppers, Clark Street Grill's got cocktail shrimp shooters: three shot glasses each poured tall with a different kind of salsa (red, yellow and tomatillo), studded with those itsy-bitsy shrimp, the kind usually breaded and fried to make, ahem, shrimp poppers. When your lead-off appetizer resembles the punch line from a quasi-cult-classic that lampoons our McSociety, you know you're in McTrouble. All the more so when the shrimp's got a funky aftertaste.
In an old Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch from Saturday Night Live, Molly Shannon's awkward "Superstar!" gets a waitress job at a T.G.I. Friday's-type place. Scott Wolf plays her frenetically over-exuberant co-worker, the kind who sits down at the table to take a party's order, and there's a cheap laugh when he lists something like "Lucky Charms chicken" as a special.
Clark Street Grill has fortune-cookie fried shrimp and pretzel-crusted chicken breast. Seriously, what is the point of fortune-cookie fried shrimp? To the credit of Clark Street's clientele, I was told by a waiter that it doesn't sell, that maybe one in fifty customers actually orders it, which might explain why mine was so awful; maybe the cooks were out of practice. (I do, however, blame the line cooks for relatively little of this. They're not the ones who wrote the menu.) The puddle of soy garlic sauce these shrimp come mired in is bracingly, cloyingly salty. It subjected my tongue into rug burn and obliterated any sweetness or crunch right out of the fortune-cookie breading. The pretzel-chicken, meanwhile, did actually taste like both pretzel and chicken, but its nothing-special flavor (I enjoyed the sides of fingerling potatoes and Broccolini more) only made the case that KFC consider adding it to its roster, not that somebody walk into Clark Street Grill and plunk down $20 for it.
Calamari, another ooh! word, shows up in the fried calamari Caesar salad. There oughta be a law demanding that whenever a restaurant serves calamari, it must first show the customer a sample plate of really good, really quality calamari: a whole damn piece of pink and purple squid -- not just some chewy white O-ring of mollusk meat that could be used as a washer on your shower taps -- unbreaded, pan-fried for just a minute, then spritzed with fresh lemon. People need to know what they're missing out on when they are instead served something resembling an onion ring. Thinking about how lovely real calamari would be on a bed of Caesar, and then getting fast food on lettuce, is heartbreaking.
And in the midst of all this, somebody had the gall to include a "simply done" beef tenderloin, paired with little more than (horseradish whipped) potatoes, (baby) spinach and (baby) carrots -- for $37.
Clark Street Grill's food does look great, with richly toned brown sauces and deep-green bok choy, Broccolini and spinach leaves. It even goes with the décor: minimalist chic but not chilly. Warm, glowing hues abound among the open-air kitchen, its sleek orange heating lamps and the front of the house's sleek wood paneling and floor-to-ceiling, loft-like columns. It feels adult but still fun.